Plekhanov 1906

Materialism Yet Again

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 2 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp 415-20. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘This article was Plekhanov’s reply to Conrad Schmidt’s “Was ist Materialismus?” (“What Is Materialism?”) which appeared in Neue Zeit in February 1899. The editorial board decided to finish the polemic with this article, offering Schmidt the final say. In this connection, Plekhanov asked Wilhelm Liebknecht to publish his reply to Schmidt in the newspaper Vorwärts!. However, the Vorwärts! editorial board also thought it better to refrain from criticising Schmidt’s “philosophical heresy,” and forwarded the manuscript to the journal Sozialistische Monatshefte. In 1906 the article was published in Russian, in the collection of Plekhanov’s works entitled A Critique of Our Critics.

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‘ll faut qu'un professeur parle, parle, parle non pas pour dire quelque chose, mais pour ne pas rester muet’, [1] Proudhon has written somewhere. Herr Doktor Conrad Schmidt firmly follows this rule, though, to the best of my knowledge, he was merely a Dozent, [2] not a Professor, for a number of years. In a note published in issue no 22 of Neue Zeit under the title of ‘Was ist Materialismus?’ he asks me a question I have already replied to in my article ‘Materialism or Kantianism’. Being utterly loth to waste words on the matter, I at first felt reluctant to repeat what I had already stated in no uncertain terms. Some of my friends, however, drew my attention to a footnote appended by the editorial board of Neue Zeit to Conrad Schmidt’s note, declaring that his concluding remarks ‘raised some new and important questions’, and that their opinion might well be shared by some readers. After some lengthy hesitation, I have therefore decided again to reply to the ‘new and important questions’ raised by Herr Doktor Conrad Schmidt.

My opponent says that I should ask myself whether such writers as La Mettrie, Holbach, Diderot and Helvétius could be considered genuine materialists. The Herr Doktor does not regard them as such, numbering them among the eclectics. This, it must be admitted, is really something new since until now it has never occurred to anybody to call eclectic such works as L'homme machine, Le Rève d'Alembert and, finally, Système de la Nature, the latter book being ‘often called the code or Bible of materialism’, according to FA Lange’s very just remark. [3]

Even if this view of the Herr Doktor is ‘new’, it is of not the least ‘importance’ because it lacks any serious foundation. The only reason for his advancing it is his feeling that he is in a very awkward situation.

If Herr Schmidt now assures us that La Mettrie and Holbach were not materialists, it is for the sole reason that these two philosophers’ doctrine does not fit into the concept of materialism he has arrived at from hearsay.

I say from hearsay because he does not seem to have gone to the trouble of studying the works of writers he has passed such surprising judgement on.

Indeed, why does Herr Schmidt consider the French eighteenth-century materialists eclectics? It is because they were under the influence of English philosophy in general, and of Locke in particular. In the first place, however, the latter’s influence is quite imperceptible in La Mettrie’s doctrine, which derived wholly and directly from the materialist half of Descartes’s doctrine. In the second place, the very nature of Locke’s sensualism, far from precluding the materialist conclusions drawn from it by Holbach and the ‘Holbachians’, simply suggested those conclusions. Herr Schmidt calls Locke a phenomenalist. Why? Can it be on the basis of his well-known ‘essay’ on the primary and secondary qualities of things surrounding us? But this is a distinction we can find as far back as in the materialist Democritus, as Herr Schmidt can discover with ease, for instance, from Zeller, the well-known historian of Greek philosophy. [4] With the materialist Thomas Hobbes, this distinction already played a very important part, as Schmidt will clearly see from paragraph four in Chapter 2 of his On Human Nature, or at least from Geschichte des Materialismus by Lange, who is quite right in saying that according to Hobbes, ‘ all the so-called sensual qualities, as such, do not belong to things but arise in us ourselves’. True, Lange here ascribes to Hobbes the seemingly ‘purely materialist’ thought that ‘human sensations are nothing more than movements of parts of the body caused by the external movement of things’. That is not quite the case. The radical question asked by Hobbes as far back as 1631 - ‘What kind of movements can give rise to sensations and the operation of the imagination in living creatures?’ - clearly shows that, with Hobbes, sensation was not movement, but an inner condition of a body in motion. That is exactly what we find in La Mettrie and Holbach; the latter translated into French Hobbes’ work mentioned above, on human nature. But perhaps Hobbes too was an ‘eclectic'? If that was so, I would like to learn who it is that Herr Schmidt would consider a genuine and honest materialist. I am very much afraid that the bill would be met only by Karl Vogt and his fellow-thinkers, and also perhaps (and even then by stretching a point) several representatives of the materialism of antiquity.

At all events, there can be no doubt that the materialism of Marx and Engels, which has come in for ‘criticism’ from Herr Schmidt, in no way fits into the definition of materialism as given by that gentleman.

Marx says that ‘the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought’. [5] It is on such grounds that Herr Schmidt has numbered Marx among those who think that man’s spiritual nature can be explained only by material qualities, only by ‘matter and force’. This alone goes to show how poorly the worthy Doctor has understood Marx. If I translate (übersetze) something from Russian into French, for instance, does my action signify that the language of Voltaire cannot be explained only through the qualities of the language of Pushkin, and that, in general, the latter is more ‘real’ than the former? Not at all. It signifies that there exist two languages, each with its own specific structure, and that if I ignore the grammar of French I shall produce, not a translation but simply a piece of confused jumble, neither understandable nor readable. If, in Marx’s words, the ideal is nothing else than the material translated and transformed in the human mind, then it is clear that, according to the same opinion, the ‘material’ is not identical with the ‘ideal’, because, conversely, there would be no need to transform and translate it. That is why there are absolutely no grounds for the absurd identicalness which Schmidt is attempting to impose upon Marx.

But if a given French sentence does not resemble the Russian sentence it has been translated from, it does not follow therefrom that the meaning of the former should differ from that of the latter. On the contrary, given that the translation is a good one, the meaning will be one and the same in both sentences, despite all dissimilarities.

In exactly the same way, while the ‘ideal’ that exists in my mind does not resemble the ‘material’ it has been ‘translated’ from, it does have the same meaning, if the translation is a good one. Experience is the yardstick of the correctness of the translation. If the meaning of the ‘ideal’ in my mind did not correspond to the actual qualities of the ‘material’, that is, the things external to and independent of my mind, those things would teach me a more or less bitter lesson the very first time I came up against them, a lesson that would more or less rapidly remove the discrepancy between the ideal and the material, if only, of course, I did not perish as a consequence of that discrepancy. It is in that sense (and only in that sense) that one can and should speak of the identity (Identität) of the ideal with the material; the weapon of Schmidt’s ‘criticism’ is quite powerless against that identity.

Our doctor irrefragabilis reproaches me with my eclecticism; after what has been said above, it will be seen that I am in excellent company in being counted among the eclectics. That is why Herr Schmidt’s rebuke of me affects me not at all. However, we would be well advised to make a closer examination of the arguments used to back it up with:

Because [says the Herr Doktor] if the operation of the law of causality is to be taken in earnest in respect of things-in-themselves, it is clear that in that case the conditions in which alone causality is conceivable, viz, space, time, and matter (or centres of forces), should be considered conditions referring to things-in-themselves too. Thereby Plekhanov’s materialism again turns, into the old and familiar materialism of philosophical identity.

In the first place, I shall note the following: I said and proved, in my article ‘Materialism or Kantianism’, [6] that if we do not recognise the effect on us (according to the law of causality) of things-in-themselves, then we of necessity arrive at subjective idealism; if we do recognise that effect, we arrive, with the same necessity, at materialism. Herr Conrad Schmidt does not consider himself either a subjective idealist or a materialist. How does he deal with the dilemma I have named? Though he has said nothing on that score, he seems to do so as follows: he acknowledges that things-in-themselves affect us, but does not do so ‘in earnest’. This is a most artful device, which shows the degree to which the learned doctor’s philosophical exercises are to be taken ‘in earnest’.

As for myself, I do of course take fully ‘in earnest’ the effect things-in-themselves have on us, as a result of which we learn some of their qualities. But what ‘old’ and familiar materialism does that admission lead to? That is something nobody knows, because materialism in general - both the old and the new - has remained unknown to Herr Schmidt.

To the irrefutable doctor it seems that in recognising that things-in-themselves affect us, I should think of matter as a condition that remains relevant in its application to the world of things by themselves. Let anyone understand that who is able to: that is something I do not understand, and I suspect that the Herr Doktor does not understand it either. For my part, however, I shall try to explain in a few words the notion I associate with the word matter.

As opposed to ‘spirit’, we call ‘matter’ that which, by affecting our sense organs, gives rise to some sensation in us. But what is it that affects our sense organs? To that I reply, together with, Kant: things-in-themselves. Consequently, matter is nothing but the totality of things-in-themselves, inasmuch as the latter are the sources of our sensations.

Since I am fully ‘in earnest’ in recognising Herr Doktor Schmidt’s existence as something independent of my consciousness, I am obliged to refer him to the number of those things-in-themselves that comprise the external world about me. The thing-in-itself known as Doctor Schmidt is able to affect my external senses: it is matter, but it is also capable of writing a poor article on philosophy, so it is matter that feels and thinks. Thus, consciousness is (in lesser or greater measure) an attribute of the substance that affects my external senses, and which I call matter. That this substance, ‘of itself’, does not resemble my representation of matter was something known to Thomas Hobbes in his time, but that does not provide the least grounds for any rejection of materialism. On the contrary, it would be very strange for sensation and the representation it brings about to resemble the thing that has caused it and is, of course, neither sensation nor representation. [7] Who does not realise that being-in-oneself is not yet either being-for-oneself or being-for-others?

Herr Schmidt also says that if I accept ‘in earnest’ the effect that things-in-themselves have on me, I must also accept that time and space are conditions (perhaps he wishes to say: definitions?) that are no less and no more valid in respect of things-in-themselves.

He might say that if I accept ‘in earnest’ that things-in-themselves exist, I must assume that they exist in time and in space. Before engaging in any explanation of the matter, I would ask the reader to note the following.

Since the assumption seems impossible to Herr Schmidt, it remains for him only to deny acknowledgement to the existence of things independently of our consciousness, that is, to adopt the standpoint of Fichte or Berkeley. What absurdities that leads to we already know.

That space and time are forms of consciousness, and that therefore subjectivity is their primary distinctive feature, was already known to Thomas Hobbes, and would not be denied by any present-day materialist. [8] The whole question is whether certain forms or relations of things correspond to these forms of consciousness. It goes without saying that materialists can give only an affirmative answer to this question, which, of course, does not mean that they recognise the false (or rather absurd) identity, which the Kantians, including Herr Schmidt, would impose upon them with obliging naivety. No, the forms and relations of things-in-themselves cannot be what they seem to us, that is, as they appear to us as ‘translated’ in our minds. Our representations of the forms and relations of things are no more than hieroglyphics; the latter designate exactly these forms and relations, and this is enough for us to be able to study how the things-in-themselves affect us, and in our turn, to exert an influence on them. [9] I repeat: if no correct correspondence existed between objective relations and their subjective representations (’translations’) in our minds, our very existence would become impossible.

Anyone who cannot accept the absurdities of subjective idealism must of necessity recognise the correctness of these considerations. It is self-understood that by ‘anyone’ I mean all those who take philosophy ‘in earnest’ and do not speak merely out of an academic habit, that is, so as not to remain dumb.

It will not occur to anyone who will give careful thought to what has been said above to compare ‘in earnest’ my views with those of Herbart or Lotz. However, there may be grounds for the objection that ‘my’ materialism closely resembles agnosticism, for example, that of Herbert Spencer. To that I shall reply in Engels’s words: English agnosticism is merely a shamefaced materialism.

But enough. My views are not clear to Herr Schmidt. Perhaps I have set them forth poorly? But why is it that my opponent refutes them so deplorably? Is it not because he understands them so badly? Is it not because he has no other idea of materialism than that held by the German philistines? I think that is the reason. If that is so, then the blame for the misunderstandings that have arisen between us should be laid, not on me but on that thing-in-itself that goes by the name of the learned Doctor Conrad Schmidt.


Notes are by Plekhanov, except those by the Moscow editors of this edition of the work, which are noted ‘Editor’, or the MIA, which are suitably noted.

1. ‘A professor should speak, speak and yet again speak, not in order to say something but just to avoid being silent.’ - Editor.

2. A dozent is an assistant professor - MIA.

3. Geschichte des Materialismus, Volume 1 (Iserlohn, 1873), p 361.

4. See his Philosophie der Griechen, Part 1 (third edition), p 705, note 1.

5. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1 (Moscow, 1974), p 29 - Editor.

6. See Georgi Plekhanov, ‘Materialism or Kantianism’, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 2 (Moscow, 1976), pp 398-414 - Editor.

7. Plekhanov is obviously mistaken here in stating that sensations and representations do not resemble the things which have engendered them. Sensations and representations are actually replicas, images of objects of the real world - Editor.

8. Plekhanov is making a concession to agnosticism in maintaining that subjectivity is the primary distinctive property of space and time. In fact space and time are objectively real forms of the existence of matter as reflected in human mind - Editor.

9. In his exposition of the Marxist theory of reflection Plekhanov was in error when he spoke of the so-called ‘theory of hieroglyphs’, which consists in the assertion that human sensations, representations and notions are not replicas of objects but merely signs, hieroglyphs. For criticism of this theory see VI Lenin, ‘Materialism and Empirio-Criticism’, Collected Works, Volume 14 (Moscow), pp 232-38) - Editor.